327. The Outdoor Classroom

Most children like to go outside. Part of the reason is that like most adults, they like the planet we live on, and it can be experienced more fully when there are no walls, doors, and windows in the way. When we first built buildings, we did it to protect ourselves and our loved ones from inclement weather and predators.
But teachers often keep children inside even when the weather is perfect and there are no predators around. I think the main reason for that is that the world outside the school is too interesting – too hard to compete with. There are also some practical considerations: even slight breezes can turn pages, or carry away papers. But there are ways around those problems. The main problem is that children have a natural tendency to pay attention to whatever is most interesting, and what goes on outside the school is often more interesting than the activities teachers have planned.
A lot of that interesting stuff can be made part of the curriculum. When children study measurement, they can measure things that are outside. As they study insects, they can go outside and see for themselves how those little creatures live. The outside world is rich with opportunities for great lessons. Then why is almost the whole school day spent inside, even on the best days September and May have to offer? I can give you my own answer: I sometimes had difficulty planning lessons that were more interesting than what children wanted to do outside. Children knew that they usually went outside just for recess, and no matter how hard I worked to prepare them to go there for something else, the minute they got outside, some of them felt as if it was recess, and behaved accordingly. Without the walls of the indoor classroom, they felt free. And though there were plenty of children who did what I asked them to do, there were also plenty who didn’t. And since I was accountable for all of the children, I felt that I had to bring the class back inside.
There were successful outdoor lessons, too. They usually included many more than the usual number of adults, and they were usually not near the playground. Parent volunteers and I worked with small groups of children, showing them and letting them show us fascinating phenomena in the world outside the school. We heard children’s questions, sometimes answered them, and sometimes helped them find their own answers. There was lots of great teaching and learning going on. When it was time to go in, neither adults nor children wanted to.
If I had it to do over again, I don’t think I would spend so much energy trying to convince children to control themselves. If the lesson were interesting, self-control wouldn’t be such an issue. So I would spend more energy planning the lessons – exploring the environments I’d later explore with the children, and figuring out which activities were most likely to compete with recess. And I’d make sure there were always plenty of other adults helping me teach.

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